Carbon footprints treading the path to sustainability

Published by Sally on May 8, 2009

A version of this article first appeared in Food Development magazine, December 2007.

You can barely take a breath these days without someone trying to measure the carbon footprint of your exhalation and suggest ways to reduce it.

For a business looking to engage in the carbon debate it is all to easy to be swamped at the very first hurdle.  The plethora of information, of government initiatives, of voluntary agreements, of industry commitments, not to mention the different ways of measuring greenhouse gases, and so on, is becoming staggering.   

Transport and distribution

Though consumers have latched onto ‘food miles’, this concept has been discredited as any sort of useful indicator of sustainability or carbon use.  It’s well established that efficient long-haul transport may well create lower carbon emissions than inefficient nationwide haulage.

But it’s true to say that companies making efficiency savings in their distribution network, will by default, be lowering their carbon emissions.  Transport is a very clear focus of attention for carbon reduction opportunities.

Supply chain consulting company Scala have undertaken some workshops with 40 food and drinks industry companies specifically on this issue. In conjunction with the Department for Transport, they are gathering data on five key transport operations indicators: vehicle fill, vehicle utilisation (hours per day), empty running, fuel consumption and delays. Their managing director, John Perry, said “there have been few practical steps taken to improve environmental standards in the supply chain” and the companies involved will be testing various models to measure efficiency indicators, with the aim of creating a standard for measuring the environmental impact of supply chain distribution.  This will have a measurable impact on all areas of the retail and foodservice distribution network.

3663, who are new entrants in the 2007 Sunday Times top 20 best big companies to work for, and who are committed to sustainability, have made significant efficiency savings on their refrigerated deliveries. A spokesperson said: “”When 3663, First for Foodservice, was looking for a more sustainable way to refrigerate deliveries it teamed up with Frigoblock refrigeration systems in a joint venture that saves more than 12,000 tonnes of CO2 per year .” All 1,127 of 3663’s lorries have these electrically-operated units.  In addition, more than two-thirds of their lorries use some proportion of biodiesel mix in their fuel.

Carbon footprints

One of the biggest challenges for carbon footprints is there are several methods used to calculate them. Which means for the consumer they are simply not comparable, as it is difficult to know which inputs have been considered and which ignored. Defra is working with BSI Global and the Carbon Trust to develop a universal methodology and calculation for use across different industries’ products and services.  

A spokesperson for BSI Global said the specification, known as PAS 2050, “will consider all lifecycle stages along the supply chain of a product or service, i.e. from raw materials to end of life.  This includes transportation at every stage of the supply chain.”   

If this work is widely adopted one of its biggest advantages is that it is likely to become possible to compare the carbon footprints of different products and services. 

In the food and drinks industries, Cadbury Schweppes, Coca-Cola, the Co-operative Group, Mϋller Dairy, Scottish and Newcastle and Tesco are all part of the second phase of partner companies working towards the publication of the specification in July 2008.

Wider sustainability

Calculating greenhouse gas emissions – the carbon footprint – is an vital element in the cause of wider sustainability.  Where the methodology dictates, carbon footprints potentially calculate the carbon emissions from every stage in a product’s lifecycle.  Sustainability adds into the equation other issues such as water use, packaging waste, and the impacts of transport – air quality, noise, congestion etc.

According to Defra, the food and drinks industries use 14% of the energy consumed by UK businesses, and accounts for one quarter of all HGV (heavy goods vehicles) vehicle kilometres in the UK. Government’s food industry sustainability strategy (FISS), has targeted the industry, setting objectives on water use, waste management and sustainable sourcing, across the supply chain from manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and the catering sector.  

Dr. Andrew Dunn, of FISS, said it “is a voluntary framework for sustainability in food industry. It has set indicative targets for action, and challenges for the industry. We need innovation to achieve step changes to take forward the sustainability agenda.”

WRAP, the Waste and Resource Action Programme, for example, estimate that food manufacturing (excluding agriculture and horticulture) and foodservice account for more than one-third of total food waste in the UK., which is almost as much as household waste.

WRAP have been working with the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) to identify the best way for the food industry to meet the challenges laid down in FISS.  To this end, a step change in the wider sustainability debate occurred when the FDF recently announced a five-fold environmental ambition on sustainability.  This commits its members, who account for 70% of the food and drinks manufacturing industry to measurable sustainability goals. Up to this point each member has been ploughing its own carbon-reduction furrow.

Their spokesperson said: “Our five-fold ambition is about changing behaviour and delivering collective improvements in environmental performance by FDF members in areas where they make a real difference.  For water use that could be on food manufacturing sites.  However, for food transport, it could be by demanding improvements from third party hauliers who distribute our products.”

On the waste front, FDF has committed its members to send zero food and packaging waste to landfill from 2015.

On energy use, the FDF has committed its members to the FISS target of 20% reduction in emissions between by 2010 compared to 1990, and tasked them to go further to a 30% reduction from the 1990 baseline.    Tate and Lyle, for example, is building a new biomass boiler, which, their spokesperson said, “will reduce Tate & Lyle’s UK cane sugar refinery’s carbon footprint by 30%.”

So, for anyone looking to get involved for the first time examining energy use is a good start point. Use less energy or friendlier energy.  And, said Dr. Dunn “if you behave more sustainably in other areas for example, by conserving water, or reducing waste, you are at the same time, even though it wasn’t your primary goal, saving on energy.” These days, less really is more.

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